Lake Superior lies directly north of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it’s the largest of the Great Lakes, with a surface area of 31,700 square miles. That also makes it the largest freshwater lake on the planet. The lake is 160 miles wide and about 350 miles long.
With the entire population of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at just over 314,000, the number of towns along Michigan’s Lake Superior coastline is relatively small. Starting from east to west, here are some of the places you should plan to explore.
Paradise sits on Whitefish Bay, 11 miles south of Whitefish Point. The hallmark of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is wildlife and waterfalls, and Tahquamenon Falls State Park features both. Tahquamenon Falls offers both Upper and Lower Falls, and the Upper Falls features a drop of almost 50 feet and a width of more than 200 feet. It’s one of the most significant falls east of the Mississippi. The Lower Falls are a string of five lesser waterfalls that cascade around an island. The Lower Falls are not as massive as the Upper Falls, but they are stunning. The water takes on colors that are a cross between copper and rootbeer, and the foam adds to the rootbeer feel.
When visiting the falls, don’t rely on your GPS. Maps are a must. The first view of the Lower Falls is 100 yards from the parking lot. To reach the next viewing platform, it’s a 10-minute walk. You’ll want to drive to the Upper Falls from the Lower Falls. For people who use wheelchairs, Tahquamenon’s track chair assists where standard wheelchairs may not work. You can reserve the chair ahead of time, and they are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
A few miles to the north of Paradise, the star attraction at Whitefish Point is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The museum focuses on the region’s maritime history. One exciting artifact at the museum is the bell from the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald, the namesake of the Gordon Lightfoot song The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.
Birdwatching is another popular activity. Whitefish Point acts as a migration corridor for birds, and the area is a global Important Bird Area designee, with over 340 recorded species of birds. The Whitefish Point Bird Observatory is an excellent place for birdwatching and photographing birds in flight.
Pro Tip: Be sure to remember insect repellent when visiting Tahquamenon Falls.
2. Grand Marais
Located on Lake Superior’s south shore, Grand Marais is the eastern entrance to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Grand Marais is a quaint harbor town of only 350 people, so the miles of Lake Superior beaches provide an opportunity for solitude and serenity. With some of the darkest skies in the United States, the beach is an excellent place for stargazers to take out their telescopes. Rockhounds will want to head to Agate Beach, directly north of Main Street, to try to uncover those semi-precious agates.
Those who enjoy quirky roadside attractions or places on the National Register of Historic Places won’t want to miss The Pickle Barrel House Museum. It all started in 1914 with William Donahey’s comic strip The Teenie Weenies. The cartoon featured two-inch high people who lived in a garden under a rosebush. The Pickle Barrel House is a 16-feet tall two-story cabin built to resemble two giant barrels. It was constructed as a cottage for William Donahey and his wife, Mary.
Those who enjoy exploring lighthouses have a pair to photograph in the Grand Marais Harbor of Refuge Inner and Outer Lights, located on the west pier at the entrance to Grand Marais Harbor of Refuge. These lights are also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pro Tip: While you’re in the area, you shouldn’t miss the stunning Kitchi-ti-kipi, Big Springs, located in Palms Book State Park.
While it isn’t on Lake Superior, Michigan’s largest freshwater spring is just over an hour from Grand Marais, if you’re in the area. Big Springs is so clear; you can see trout deep in the water.
Munising is the western gateway to the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Located on Lake Superior’s south shore, it was the first of four national shorelines. The National Park Service operates the Pictured Rocks, where you’ll find vivid multi-colored limestone cliffs.
Pictured Rocks National Shoreline sits between Munising and Grand Marais, and you’ll find it to be an outdoor-lover’s heaven.
A Michigan Upper Peninsula food specialty is a pastie, and Muldoon’s Pasties and Gifts is a popular place to try one. The pastie is a hand-held Cornish meat pie made with ground beef, potatoes, carrots, onion, and rutabaga, baked in a piecrust. Sometimes they’re enjoyed served on a plate and topped with gravy.
Pro Tip: One of the easiest ways to fully view the Pictured Rocks National Shoreline is through a boat tour, especially if you find hiking difficult. The boat tour is excellent for all activity levels. Pictured Rocks Cruises leave from the Munising City Dock, where the longest tours are two hours and 15 minutes and include Spray Falls, covering 32 miles roundtrip.
Marquette is the largest city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and is a major port for shipping iron ore. Marquette is home to Northern Michigan University, where you’ll find DeVos Art Museum on the University’s campus. With over 1,500 items in its permanent collection, you’ll find art ranging from local and regional artists to Japanese art and artifacts.
Stay at the Hampton Inn Marquette Waterfront on the Lake Superior shore. We enjoyed our breakfast and morning coffee on the deck overlooking Lake Superior. Even on cold mornings, the large windows allow for a beautiful view of the lake.
Marquette Regional History Center offers a permanent collection that includes artifacts from prehistoric copper culture to contemporary times. The history center also provides a series of special exhibits.
Pro Tip: In the summer, the Marquette Regional History Center offers 90-minute Historic Marquette Walking Tours, where you’ll meet historic characters in period dress who provide fun historical interpretations of local sites. Digital audio tours are available on their website.
5. Big Bay
Located about 45 minutes northwest of Marquette, Big Bay is a small town with attractive accommodations. Big Bay Point Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast offers an overnight lighthouse experience. While the Big Bay Lighthouse is an active navigation aid that the U.S. Coast Guard still monitors, you can still overnight here in the bed and breakfast.
Another place to stay or dine in Big Bay is the Thunder Bay Inn. This inn is full of history, from when it was once the accommodations for Ford executives visiting the local automotive plant to when it served as the setting for the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder with James Stewart. History buffs will enjoy this venue.
Van Riper State Park in nearby Champion, Michigan, isn’t on Lake Superior, but rather Lake Michigamme, an inland lake. This state park creates a fun day trip from Big Bay, where you can spend the day picnicking and enjoying the sandy beach. Take a slow drive through the park’s northern area, and you might experience a moose encounter.
Pro Tip: Be aware that Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has two time zones. The Lake Superior coastline is in the Eastern time zone; however, some west near Wisconsin areas are on Central time. When making time-sensitive reservations, check which time zone the venue is following.
Situated on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Houghton is the largest city in the Copper Country region. Houghton is a fun town to visit if you’re interested in geology. The A.E. Seaman Mineral Museum includes three mineral collections: the A.E. Seaman Mineral Collection, the University of Michigan’s collection, and the Great Lakes collection. Houghton, one gateway to Isle Royale National Park, but a true hidden gem), provides ferries and seaplanes to transport you to the island.
Editor’s Note: Isle Royale was one of 2020’s least visited national parks, but a true hidden gem.
Pro Tip: During the summer months, May through September is the best time to visit. In winter, the area measures snow in feet rather than inches, and some activities like access to Isle Royale National Park are seasonal.
7. Copper Harbor
Located on the northernmost point of the Keweenaw Peninsula, Copper Harbor got its name from its mining history. For stunning views of Lake Superior up to 1,300 feet above sea level, the Brockway Mountain Drive takes you nine miles along a picturesque drive.
History buffs will enjoy Copper Harbor’s 700-acre Fort Wilkins Historic State Park. The park offers an 1844 U.S. Army Outpost and an 1866 Copper Harbor Lighthouse, one of the first lighthouses on Lake Superior.
Located about one mile south of Copper Harbor, spring is the best time to view the 45-foot tall Manganese Falls. The falls are often non-existent in the summer months.
Pro Tip: Under the right weather conditions, you can view the northern lights from Copper Harbor.